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U.S. Plays Down North Korean War Threats

The comments by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer came in response to increasingly heated rhetoric from the communist state, including the threat of possible preemptive action if threatened by the United States.

The threat appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which quoted North Korean deputy foreign minister Ri Pyong-Gap as warning Pyongyang reserves the right to attack the U.S. in response to an attack on their nuclear facility.

“The United States says that after Iraq, we are next,” the minister said. “But we have our own countermeasures. Pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the U.S.”

Fleischer responded, saying the rhetoric “only hurts North Korea” and adds to its international isolation.

The press secretary also expressed concern for North Korea’s assertion Wednesday that a pre-emptive attack on their newly restarted nuclear reactor would ignite “total war” with the United States.

“When the U.S. makes a surprise attack on our peaceful facilities, it will spark off a total war,” the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an article carried by the country’s official news agency, KCNA.

During State Department budget hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the U.S. is concentrating on finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff, but said President Bush “has retained all of his options.”

“No options have been taken off the table, the option of sanctions, the option of additional political moves,” Powell told the committee. “No military option’s been taken off the table, although we have no intention of attacking North Korea as a nation — the president said that — or invading North Korea.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, however, said late Wednesday that Pyongyang’s decision to restart its nuclear program would give the reclusive communist state the option to make nuclear weapons for itself or to sell to other countries.

“That is something the world has to take very seriously,” Rumsfeld said. “It’s a regime that is a terrorist regime. It’s a regime that has been involved in things that are harmful to other countries.”

The war of words intensified after North Korea’s announcement Wednesday that it had restarted a nuclear plant at the center of their suspected nuclear program. Despite the North’s claim it has restarted the plant at Yongbyon for electricity production, U.S. officials suspect it is being used to produce plutonium. They say the five-megawatt plant is not powerful enough to provide a meaningful amount of electricity for the energy-starved nation.

Although the North issued an announcement Wednesday that the plant had been reactivated, their reports are difficult to corroborate since the country expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in December. Officials at the South Korean Foreign Ministry said they were also trying to confirm the validity of North Korea’s claimed nuclear activity.

“We are trying various channels to confirm what it means,” an official at the South Korean Foreign Ministry said. “At this moment, we have no information to confirm that North Korea has reactivated its nuclear facilities, that is the reactor and other key facilities.”

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